The South China Sea, notes Bernard Cole, a former US Navy captain who also taught maritime strategy at the National War College, covers four million square kilometers, has significant energy resources, and contains trade arteries through which one-third of the world’s commerce transits. Its geographic location astride the Southeast Asian littoral makes it the maritime gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China’s claim of sovereignty over the entire sea and conflicting claims by other countries in the region make the South China Sea a geopolitical flashpoint and potential scene of military conflict among regional and global powers.

In his new book Asia Betrayed, John Bell Smithback sets out to prove that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (with the connivance of US President Franklin Roosevelt) through treachery and deceit lured the Japanese militarists to attack and invade British, Dutch and American possessions in the Far East so that the United States could become a full belligerent with Britain against Germany.

The subtitle of Kerry Brown’s new book, China’s World: What Does China Want?, is a question that is on the minds of the world’s statesmen, policymakers, international relations scholars, global investment advisors, international business leaders and geopolitical thinkers. Given China’s growing global diplomatic, economic, and military footprint, the answer to that question will shape the geopolitics of the rest of the 21st century.

The prolific British historian Niall Ferguson contends that the Second World War began in July 1937, when, after an “incident” at the Marco Polo Bridge on the outskirts of Beijing, Japan sent five divisions to Northern and coastal China. By the end of the year, more than 800,000 Japanese troops occupied 150,000 square miles of Chinese territory, and the Chinese capital of Nanking had been literally raped and pillaged by Japanese forces.

It is important for statesmen and policymakers to study and understand history, but the use of historical analogies to inform policy is fraught with dangers. The United States and its allies discovered that the “lessons of Munich” of 1930s Europe, for example, were not easily translatable to wars on the Korean peninsula and later in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 60s.

History does not repeat itself. Every historical event occurs in its own time and circumstances. That is not to say that policymakers cannot learn important lessons from history, but their precise application to current or future events is at best problematic and at worst a recipe for disaster.